Arizona-Led Space Mission Arrives at Asteroid

Pablo Tucker
December 6, 2018

The primary mission of OSIRIS-REx is to gather sample materials from the carbon-rich surface of Bennu and send it back to Earth for scientific analysis. The spacecraft travelled for over two years and covered more than 2 billion kms.

Scientists have estimated that in 2135 Bennu could pass closer to Earth than the moon, which orbits at a distance of about 250,000 miles, and possibly come closer still some time between 2175 and 2195.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft arrives at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu today.

NASA will air a live event from 11:45 12:15 p.m. EST to highlight the arrival of the agency's first asteroid sample return mission.

It will spend nearly a year surveying the asteroid with five scientific instruments with the goal of selecting a location that is safe and scientifically interesting to collect the sample and return it to Earth in September 2023.

Both Bennu and Ryugu are near-earth asteroid, with a diameter of about 500 meters and 900 meters respectively. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that OSIRIS-REx arrived within Bennu's Hill Sphere - the region where the asteroid's gravity field is stronger than the Sun's - on 1 December.

OSIRIS-REx will continue doing this over the next four weeks, during close flybys over Bennu's north pole, equator and south pole that will bring the probe as close as 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) to the asteroid's surface.

'Analyzing a sample from Bennu will help planetary scientists better understand the role asteroids may have played in delivering life-forming compounds to Earth, ' NASA explains. The craft has enough nitrogen gas for three attempts, if this first try doesn't work. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland manages the overall mission.

The thing that excites me most about the OSIRIS REx mission is the fact that we are literally going to a world that we've never been to before.

The low gravity of smaller objects like asteroids makes it more hard to target missions.

Osiris-Rex will later fly back to Earth, jettisoning a capsule bearing the asteroid specimen for a parachute descent in the Utah desert, U.S. in September 2023. And since Bennu has a 1-in-2,700 chance of impacting Earth about 200 years from now, researchers figure it would be good to glean some insights about the asteroid's fate - and how it might intersect with our own. The $800 million mission was launched in September of 2016, and if all goes according to plan, it will return a sample to Earth in September, 2023.

Bennu, which is one of 700,000 known asteroids in the solar system, is characterized as potentially hazardous because there's a chance it could collide with Earth in the late 22nd century.

Once landing on Bennu the 3.5-metre-long probe will spend two years exploring the surface.

It's believed to have formed 4.5 billion years ago, a remnant of the solar system's building blocks.

"Now we're at it again, working with our partners in the United States and Canada to accomplish the Herculean task of bringing back to Earth a piece of the early solar system", Glaze said.

This carbon-rich asteroid could be full of organic molecules, metals, platinum and even water - the essential ingredients for life.

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